(first posted 10/16/2013) In order to justify my headline, I have to make a few disclaimers and qualifications: by “compact”, I mean the Big Three’s low-end economy compacts that arrived in 1960-1962 with their little six cylinder engines. The Studebaker Lark always offered a V8, but then the Lark was more of an “intermediate” given its width, being just a shortened “regular” Studebaker. And the upscale 1961 B-O-P “compacts” were also closer to intermediate size, with their 112″ wheelbases.
That leaves the Falcon, Valiant, Chevy II, and Rambler American, designed in response to the imports and the 1958 recession, conceived as true economy cars with sixes only. But that all changed quickly, in response to the 1960½ Corvair Monza coupe, which turned the compact into a sporty car. Ford, often a market leader, had to play catch up, and in the spring of 1963, they began to offer the Windsor 260 CID V8 in the Falcon. That deft move quickly opened up a whole new category.
The ultra-compact and light Windsor V8 made its first appearance in the 1962 Fairlane, in 221 CID form, making 145 hp. By midyear 1962, the 260 inch version rated at 164 hp was introduced on the Fairlane 500 Coupe as well. Obviously, the Windsor V8 was designed initially for the Fairlane, as well as with an eye to a future larger version (289) to replace the very obsolete 292 Y-block in the full size cars and trucks. But did Ford plan for its use in the Falcon all along?
But the 1962 Corvair Spyder (CC here), with its 150 hp turbocharged engine changed the equation, and in a very profound way. Suddenly, the performance compact had truly arrived, and would herald a new age, including of course the Mustang.
Its true that the 1960 and 1961 Valiant offered a very hot HyperPak version of the 170 CID slant six, making a formidable 148 hp. But that engine was really developed for racing, which allowed the Valiants to dominate the new NASCAR compact class (full story here), with their 130 mph top speed. The HyperPak was an insider’s hot tip, but never marketed, and its take rate was undoubtedly minute.
The Falcon Sprint arrived in the spring of 1963, as part of Ford’s 1963½ Total Command Performance blitz, which included the new semi-fastback roof lines on the Falcon as well as the big Ford. The Sprint, with the 260 V8, was put to the test in the Monte Carlo Rally to burnish its performance credentials, although not with the wire wheel covers and whitewalls as shown here in this ad.
But the 260 V8 was also available across the board in the Falcon series, which really rather transformed it, given its 2300-2400 lb weight. This Futura coupe has a three-speed on the tree, much more preferable than the two-speed Fordomatic. With their light weight, these V8 falcons scooted right along, despite the 260 having only a two barrel carb.
The competition couldn’t be left behind, of course. The 283 V8 found its way (officially) in the 1964 Chevy II (CC here).
And the timing of Chrysler’s new 273 CID LA engine in 1964 was auspicious, giving the Valiant (and Dodge) some additional scoot. The Chevy II, with the available four-barrel 220 hp 283 had them all beat, since the Falcon kept the 260 into 1964, although its possible/likely that the 289 made it into Sprints later that year.
Of course, the rest is well-known history. The definition of performance cars changed very quickly within just a few short years. Prior to the 1963.5 Falcon V8, it was the big full-size cars that carried the banner. The shrunken 1962 full/mid-size Dodge and Plymoputh showed the obvious: that a smaller and lighter body had intrinsic advantages. This was of course then exploited fully by the 1964 Pontiac GTO, and then the performance versions of the pony cars.
But the V8 compacts carved out a substantial niche as the cheapest way to get big-bore performance. The Chevy II/Nova carried that banner most successfully, offering big-block 396s with up to 375 (underrated) hp. And the Dodge Dart GTS had a 383 on tap. But the big-block compact era was short lived, and just as well. The introduction of Chrysler’s 340 V8 in 1968 soon changed the balance of power (and front/rear weight ratio).
That came to its greatest success in the 1970 Duster 340 (CC here), a veritable giant killer. Of course, the V8 compact was an ephemeral construct, and as their replacements either swelled or shrunk, the original idea soon enough became mostly irrelevant. But in its time, it offered unbeatable performance for the buck, and the Falcon gets the credit for launching the genre.